Opposition to the cabinet confidentiality referendum held at the last presidential election
At the last presidential election, held 30 October 1997, there was also a ballot to amend the constitution, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution Bill. This was to safeguard the tradition of cabinet confidentiality with explicit exceptions which sought to correct a difficulty which Justice Liam Hamilton found during the Beef Tribunal, when he was unable to question Ray Burke on his recollections of a cabinet meeting. With three tribunals of inquiry established in 1997 alone, this was of increasing importance.
It involved the insertion of a new Article 28.4.3°: –
The confidentiality of discussions at meetings of the Government shall be respected in all circumstances save only where the High Court determines that disclosure should be made in respect of a particular matter –
- in the interests of the administration of justice by a Court, or
- by virtue of an overriding public interest, pursuant to an application in that behalf by a tribunal appointed by the Government or a Minister of the Government on the authority of the Houses of the Oireachtas to inquire into a matter stated by them to be of public importance.
The amendment was supported by the five leading parties; the wording had originally been drafted during the lifetime of the Fine Gael–Labour–Democratic Left coalition, and the coalition of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, which had been in government since June, carried the amendment bill forward, proposing it in September.
It was opposed within the Dáil by the Green Party, whose John Gormley described the attempt to railroad the amendment as “tantamount to blackmail” (The Irish Times, 28 Oct. 1997).
More notably and contentious politically, it was also opposed by senior figures within the Progressive Democrats. Party founder and former leader, Des O’Malley, then a backbench government TD, criticised the bill in the Dáil as being too restrictive. He spoke (Vol. 480, No. 4, Col. 680) of his own experiences of a Minister, and the effect the amendment would have on the ability of former ministers to write memoirs,
I was a Minister for 13 years and I know it is usual to speak with the Secretary. Will this now be illegal? Frequently it is necessary to speak with a number of civil servants about matters discussed at Cabinet. This is perfectly proper but the current proposal will make it illegal.
I am in the unusual position of having resigned, for good reason, on two occasions from Government. I know the procedure and the trauma occasioned by this. At present there is an absolute right for a Minister to explain to the House why he resigned from Cabinet. However, what is now proposed will preclude him from doing so. This is ridiculous.
It is a tradition in Britain and less so here that former Ministers write their memoirs. Two were written here in recent years by former Deputies Garret FitzGerald and Gemma Hussey. Both quote extensively from what was said and done at Cabinet meetings. In Britain, almost every former Minister writes his or her memoirs, quoting extensively from Cabinet discussions. Bona fide students of history need to know what discussions take place in Cabinet but now they will not be able to find out.
He criticized the rush of the bill, and called for it to be redrafted and delayed until the vote on the Amsterdam Treaty (which ultimately took place in May 1998).
Also outspoken was former Progressive Democrat TD (and future party leader), Michael McDowell. He publicly clashed with Mary Harney, then leader, after he wrote in an article for the Irish Independent that the proposal was “the predictable consequence of running the country out of the hip pocket and handbag of coalition leaders, without consultation or reflection”. He had also around this time criticized Mary Harney for rowing in behind Fianna Fáil and giving formal party support to Mary McAleese as a presidential candidate. He announced on Questions and Answers that he intended to allow his party membership to last until March. Significantly however, he would “not unequivocally rule out any future role in politics” (The Irish Times, 25 Oct. 1997).
The Irish Times editorial line was opposed to the referendum, with a heading “Vote No” to the editorial on the day of the vote and columnists Dr Garret FitzGerald, former Taoiseach, and Vincent Browne also wrote against it. Garret FitzGerald criticized the way that “the best that two successive government have been able to come up with has been a constitutional amendment for just two very specific and limited exceptions, outside of which the dangerous rigidity of Supreme Court’s ruling will continue to operate in a thoroughly perverse way”. He echoed O’Malley’s concerns of the right of resigning ministers to give an explanation, a right of a minister to discuss cabinet with civil servants, and the effect it would have on historians (18 Oct. 1997). Vincent Browne proposed an alternative constitutional amendment, “The confidentiality of government discussions shall not be a matter of Constitutional right but shall be regulated by law” (29 Oct. 1997), and expressed confidence that a further appeal to the Supreme Court would overturn their ruling of 1992.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties opposed the amendment on similar grounds to those of Des O’Malley and Garret FitzGerald mentioned above (The Irish Times, 27 Oct. 1997).
It would be a stretch to draw any direct parallels between the referendum on cabinet confidentiality and tomorrow’s referendum on Oireachtas inquiries, it is interesting at least to find Michael McDowell, the Green Party, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and The Irish Times, (and Vincent Browne as a columnist), again on the same side calling for a No vote. (And it was also Brendan Howlin who spoke for the Labour Party in the Dáil supporting the Amendment).
Ultimately, it passed by 52% to 48%, with 5% of votes spoiled. I would imagine that tomorrow’s vote on Oireachtas inquiries will be similarly tight, and again with a high proportion of votes spoiled.